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Sports Saturday

Masked man strikes in Las Vegas

Chicago native Murges was one of many duped by a well-connected scammer who vanished without a trace.

Before the masked mandate was lifted in Las Vegas, Joe Garcia would be seen winning over bettors at the South Point, Westgate SuperBook and The D.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — As Vegas awakened from an 11-week pandemic shutdown one year ago, Joe Garcia parachuted in wearing a mask on his mug, larceny on his mind.

He’d bilk about $25,000 from a few hundred people. Was it all calculated or a series of events that escalated into a panicky escape?

The black mask might serve as Exhibit A.

“He absolutely loved that there was COVID and he could wear a mask,” says 57-year-old Chicago native John Murges, a longtime Florida resident and a professional bettor who would unwisely befriend Garcia.

“Nobody would ever be able to identify him. He once told me, ‘I hope [the mask requirement] stays forever; I never want to take it off.’ ”

Garcia would ingratiate himself onto the scene at the South Point, Westgate SuperBook and The D, finagling an exclusive invitation to Circa’s Golden Ticket grand-opening gala in late October.

Embarrassing, says Derek Stevens, owner of Circa and The D. He and associates knew Garcia as Little Joe. The Vegas Stats & Information Network called him Backdoor Little Joe.

Today, in Las Vegas, his name is Dirt.

When Murges visited recently, Stevens’ lieutenant, Mike Palm, told him, “[Garcia] betrayed a lot of people.”

Jared Holley, who operates Sports Gambling Daily (SGD) in Texas, had hired Garcia as an independent contractor in a promotional capacity, and says nobody suspected him of being a scam artist.

“But I guess that’s the key to being a good scam artist,” Holley said. “He deceived everybody. It’s a wild story.”

CONNECTIONS

Garcia kept a blanket and pillow in his car — actually, his mother’s Altima. He first alighted at the South Point and Westgate. He concocted The Streak, a goofball consecutive-days sportsbook run that would surpass 200.

It clicked. From scant Twitter followers, SGD amassed more than 6,000. South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews soon insisted Garcia exclude him from those incessant mass tweets.

At the SuperBook on June 30, a retired San Diego cop introduced Murges to Garcia, who’d introduce Murges to vice president Jay Kornegay and executive director John Murray. At the D, Murges met Stevens and Palm through Garcia.

Those presentations wowed Murges, who was raised in Park Ridge, attended Maine East High, pitched at Illinois-Chicago and would make book for, well … let’s just say, well-connected figures.

Murges, who visited for 10 days to bet the first two NFL weekends, had hatched Wager Globe, a future sports-betting resource. For that, he prized Garcia’s connections.

Garcia suggested discussing partnership possibilities in private, so he weaseled into Murges’ room at The D. His round-the-clock gadget alerts drove Murges nuts. He would wash his clothes in the sink, dry them over the shower-curtain rod.

Exasperated, Murges left before the second weekend. He still fancied a Wager Globe affiliation — with a Circa, say — someday, but circumstances would intervene.

Garcia had told Murges and Holley he had done time for drug offenses. Holley finds no birthdate on Garcia’s 1099 tax form — he calls himself Juan and Santa Fe Springs, California, home — but pegs him in his early 50s.

Holley bristled that Garcia was making picks on SGD’s Twitter page and had made a Circa-mask snapshot his avatar. On an annual Halloween trek to Vegas, Holley severed ties with Garcia, who constantly glanced over his shoulders.

Holley suspected drugs.

NO IDEA

Publicly, against the NBA spread, Garcia went a ridiculous 24-3 through December. Emboldened, he trumpeted a $100 monthly tout service via a private Twitter account a week into 2021.

Venmo and PayPal would lock, albeit temporarily, his accounts. Garcia begged to access bettor Sean Alvarez’s information. He refused, recommending Stripe.

“He stopped responding,” Alvarez said. “I told him he needed a website and a privacy policy, terms of service, but he wanted nothing to do with that. He had no idea what he was doing.”

Garcia went 2-18 over two weeks, drawing immense criticism.

Murges had partnership papers arranged, but he would never make the increasingly edgy Garcia an offer. Garcia told Murges, in town for the AFC and NFC title games, he had to bolt to Southern California.

His mother, he said, had contracted the coronavirus.

On Jan. 24, Garcia vanished.

Many say 270 bought the service, a $27,000 heist. Some claim to have secured refunds, though, so the tab might be closer to $20,000. One source said “being ghosted” proved most infuriating.

“Also, it’s just too much money to let someone get away with stealing.”

Murges returned to Sarasota and vomited after Alvarez rang to say he believed they never again would see Garcia. Murges called more than 50 of those affected to profusely apologize for having associated with such scum.

VANISHING ACT

I ring Garcia in February, March and April. No answer. May 20, a man answers. Wrong number, he says, adding that he obtained it in early February.

Several people believe Garcia is lurking in the East L.A. shadows. A few hope to see him again, to settle scores. One speculates, “It’s a big desert.”

As legal sports betting seems to spread by the week, I tell Stevens that it’s imperative that greenhorns know the industry’s manifold perils, like Joe Garcia’s Hoboken Hustle.

“I don’t disagree with you,” Stevens said. “If he scammed somebody out of a hundred bucks, I feel bad for whoever got scammed. There are a lot of scams in this world.”